The Practiced Painter

Photo from Barry Thomas Fine Art & Studio Facebook page.

“What am I going to get my mom for Mother’s Day?” This is a thought that has prevailed in the minds of boys for centuries. For Mr. Barry Thomas, Class of 1981, this question developed into much more than a once-a-year dilemma. He, too, weighed his options as to what would be the most meaningful gift and settled on making something original for his mom. But what would he create? The answer to that question changed Mr. Thomas’ life and continues to have an impact today.

Mr. Thomas is one of Arkansas’ most recognizable artists. His paintings grace the walls of art galleries from Sante Fe to New Orleans.  He is popular with collectors of art in Little Rock. Mr. Thomas has a large studio on Main Street in Argenta where he works on his own projects and teaches others to paint.

Mr. Thomas is both a 1981 Catholic High alum as well as a former Razorback football player under Coach Lou Holtz. Although he didn’t always excel in school in terms of grades, it didn’t stop Father George Tribou from recognizing a shared love of the arts and the human experience. In fact, Mr. Thomas traveled with Father Tribou to New York and across Europe acting as his personal driver while still attending Catholic High. It was moments like these that helped him develop into who he is now.

“One day I just went running,” Mr. Thomas said, comparing the beginning of his career to the life of Forrest Gump. “The big question was, ‘Are you going to make a living at it? Where are you going to be in five years?’ I don’t know,” he said, “I’m just taking it each day at a time. You know, it’s like having a dream, living in a dream, and hoping one day you don’t wake up to reality. Own that dream and know that, ‘Yes I have a talent at it,’ but also have discipline and take risks and hit it as hard as you can.”

After playing football for Lou Holtz, Mr. Thomas decided to follow his dream of becoming a serious artist. His coach understood Mr. Thomas’s talent and Mr. Holtz even wrote a letter of recommendation to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. There Mr. Thomas concentrated on studying American Impressionism, his art genre of choice to the present.

Mr. Thomas gives credit to discipline for most of his success. He said, “You can put this incredible power of beautiful human energy into your discipline. People respond to the dancer, the singer who is just bringing it from their heart. But you don’t know that they spent thousands – tens of thousands of hours on their guitar or whatever their practice is. It’s telling yourself what not to be doing.

“A warrior runs light, meaning that he only carries so much on the saddle of his horse when he goes out,” said Mr. Thomas. “He only takes enough to conquer. An artist has to feel that way; you can’t be doing too much or have too much in your head. You have to have great thought but you need to be lean in your mind so that your creativity and sense of wonder and imagination can be bigger. The practice of discipline is easy when you’ve kind of simplified your life.”

Mr. Thomas divides his weekday into three six-hour segments to make his practice of self-discipline easier. “So there’s three days in one day,” he said. “The first day is I own the day: So my wakeup schedule today was 3:30,  and I read for about two hours and then I go and workout for about another hour and a half or two hours. “Then I work. About nine o’clock till three. That’s the second day, that’s my art. Then from three o’clock, it’s family time. It’s the people I love. Going for a walk, it can be leisure. It’s social time or it can be nap time. It’s getting outside your box and reaching out, helping another person. Be purposeful to somebody else.”

Speaking for all people but especially other artists, Mr. Thomas said, “You better have a structure about yourself. You have two ways of [going]. If you got up this morning and you didn’t eat breakfast, you are declining. Or you got up and ate a healthy breakfast and so you went up a little bit and then you worked out so you went a step up. As the day goes by, you know, if you don’t eat and drink enough water or if you don’t read, you decline. You are nothing but a subject to deterioration and decline unless you painfully practice discipline and hard work. And if you work out, you gain joy. If I spend an hour in the gym, I have 23 three hours of joy and empowerment because I went upwards.

“You are a vehicle of energy, what you take in is what you’re putting out and what you’re putting out is that artwork. Just talk to a professional ballet dancer. If they walked in the room and sat down, you would know they are something great. If a great musician walked in, they don’t have to talk, they just radiate their energy but they’re also practicing painfully. I mean look at the ballerina’s feet, just beat up. Look at the guitarist’s hands.”

Mr. Thomas believes that everyone is born with a sort of artistic curiosity for the world around them and that it is up to the individual to remain centered and present to keep it alive. “Everything else is just noise,” he said. “It really doesn’t feed my heart and soul or mind. The world is just like a bunch of ants on an ant hill, just crazy. So I think people get lost in that, you know. Art is – I mean if you look at it in a Christian or godly manner– really just understanding the Creator, you appreciate little-bitty things, and I think deep down inside your heart you’re really understanding faith, why I’m here. It’s a powerful relationship with the planet and pretty much just God the Creator, and I think nothing will ever pull you away once you feel the power of that.”

This curiosity mixed with a unique attitude and boldness toward life has driven Mr. Thomas to accomplish many things. He completed a pilot’s license while still a student at Catholic High, flying solo at just sixteen years old. He has also done deep dives on a number of other hobbies including fly-fishing and horse riding. In all of these situations, he has never doubted his ability to be great if not one of the greatest. Painters John Singer Sargent and Nicolai Fechin are among some of his favorites but in regards to them he said, “I admired them, I look at them, but I’m like, ‘They’re a human being who had less I have.’ They had a candle, they didn’t have air conditioning and heating like we have. Now we have a phone and laptop to bring up Nicolai Fechin and go Bam! and then I can look at it. They had to go travel in a  horse-and-buggy to the museum or class or the cold to go out painting.”

“My point being is I’m like, ‘Damn, they’re good but I should do as much work [as they did] and figure it out better than they did.’” Mr. Thomas encourages those with dreams to believe in their ability to achieve them. He said, “You say this, ‘You know, why can’t I paint the best painting ever painted in history? It can be me.’ It’s ok to say that. A basketball player is looking at Michael Jordan and Michael Jordan had to look at, you know, Magic Johnson and everybody in front of him and go, ‘I’m gonna whoop your tail when I get to the NBA.’ and he did. Tiger Woods, no one had ever been as good as he is, that’s the hardest worker in golf. It’s ok to have a mindset that – you know, a lot of artists are like, ‘Oh he’s so great I wish I could be great.’ No, I am going to be great. It’s ok to say, ‘I am.’”

It is this determination and competitiveness that has helped Mr. Thomas cement himself in the art world and life. On football and school, he said, “We all agreed to this when you put your helmet on or when we’re in class. You know, you didn’t come in here to just be like, ‘I’ll sit in the back and you can have the front row.’ No, I’m gonna get there twenty or thirty minutes early and I’m taking the best seat in the house.” And, “If you get there thirty minutes early, I’m getting there an hour early.” Still, Mr. Thomas said, “You have to be at the same time a gentleman. I think it was Marcus Aurelius that said, ‘Always have a sword but never pull it out of its sheath.’”

Today, Mr. Thomas continues to find joy in painting, both from the freedom it gives him and the happiness it brings others. Catholic High Alumnus, Mr. Tag Grace ’15, and his wife, Mrs. Suzanna Grace, had their wedding painted by Mr. Thomas. About the painting, they said, “We look back at the painting and remember just how special that day was. We are so thankful for Barry and his talent; we have a piece to cherish forever.” Wedding painting has become a prominent genre in Mr. Thomas’ portfolio which is made up mostly of landscapes, city scenes, and portraits. It makes sense though. Overall, Mr. Thomas said, “It’s not about my brush or drawing; it’s the love I have for people and the humanity of us and the relationship between us and the world. I’m just crazy about it.”

Many share a similar sentiment about Mr. Thomas. Ms. Anna Kay Frueauff, both a friend and owner of multiple works by Mr. Thomas, said about him, “Over the last several decades he’s grown into a very generous, thoughtful person and artist. Arkansas is so lucky to have him.” There’s still much more to come for the painter and he aims to both live and capture it to the fullest of his ability. He poses a question for himself and the world though, “How can we just go back and let art be just a beautiful reminder of the planet and God?”

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